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Two deputy Conservative party chairs quit on Tuesday as Rishi Sunak suffered the biggest revolt of his premiership, with 60 rebel Tory MPs attempting to force him to toughen up his Rwanda legislation.
Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith quit before they were sacked, as they joined 58 other Tory MPs in backing an amendment intended to ensure asylum seekers are sent to Rwanda without delay.
Sunak defeated the rightwing Tory rebels by 529 votes to 68 thanks to the backing of Labour and other opposition parties, which oppose the Rwanda bill in principle.
But the prime minister’s victory came at a high political price, with Tory divisions on migration on full public display, vitriol flying between the different wings of his party and his authority shaken.
The key vote came on a rebel amendment tabled by veteran Tory MP Sir Bill Cash that would have disapplied international law to curtail legal appeals by irregular migrants.
There were 60 Tory rebels — including two vote tellers — while eight DUP MPs from Northern Ireland and two independent MPs also backed the amendment tabled by Cash.
Cash’s amendment would have blocked asylum seekers from trying to prevent their removal under the European Convention on Human Rights or other international treaties.
Conservative rightwingers on Tuesday night were licking their wounds, with many warning they could now vote against the entire bill when it is given its crucial third reading in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
One former minister and rebel said: “I think there is a real danger the government could lose its majority. What’s the point of having legislation that doesn’t work? You might as well go back and start again.”
But Sunak’s allies are confident the rebels are bluffing and will not rally the 28 Tory MPs needed to vote with opposition parties to overturn the government’s working majority of 54.
One ally said: “The rebels may be out in force tonight but we’re going to be OK tomorrow for third reading.” A defeat for Sunak on a central plank of his legislation would be a political catastrophe for the prime minister.
Throughout the day Tory whips were rushing through Westminster’s corridors trying to contain the rebellion, with former chief whips Mark Harper and Mark Spencer joining the effort.
Sunak’s calculation is that Tory MPs would be pilloried by their constituents if they rebelled and killed the Rwanda bill, which he has called “the toughest immigration law ever”.
One rightwing minister said of the rebels: “They are just not strategically very bright. They have told the country that our policy is shit, but when it comes to the third reading vote they will abstain and look stupid.”
Sunak may draw comfort from the fact that when the bill had its second reading last month there were fewer than 30 rebel abstentions and no votes against, despite much sabre-rattling beforehand.
Tory members of the so-called “five families” of different right-wing factions met on Tuesday night to discuss tactics. Around a dozen have so far suggested they might vote against the bill at its third reading.
Earlier on Tuesday Sunak offered some minor concessions to the rebels, including promising extra judges and additional hearing rooms to take appeals by asylum seekers trying to avoid being sent to Rwanda.
Sunak’s allies also said they could accept a proposal by former home secretary Priti Patel to make it clear that ministers were not breaching the ministerial code if they overruled injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights to halt an individual being sent to Rwanda while their case was heard by the courts.
Earlier the UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued a new assessment of Sunak’s plan, which aims to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK by clandestine routes to Rwanda to have their claims processed.
The UN body said the plan did not “meet the required standards relating to the legality and appropriateness of the transfer of asylum seekers and is not compatible with international refugee law”.
Amendments presented by Conservative MPs
MPs from across the Tory party put forward amendments to Rishi Sunak’s flagship migration bill.
Rightwingers said their proposed changes would “strengthen” the legislation by preventing attempts to remove asylum seekers from becoming entangled in challenges in British and European courts.
One amendment by former immigration minister Robert Jenrick would have compelled the government to ignore “pyjama injunctions”, referring to injunctions granted at the last minute and sometimes late at night by the European Court of Human Rights.
Critics have said several of the amendments put forward by rightwing MPs would have placed the UK in breach of international law.
Former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland, a senior member of the centrist “One Nation” grouping of Tory MPs, put forward a series of counter proposals.
His amendments would have removed clauses of the bill that disapply parts of the UK’s Human Rights Act and give ministers sole discretion in deciding whether to adhere to injunctions from Strasbourg.